Wednesday 25 September 2019

Sheer delight: Iestyn Davies and James Hall in duets by Henry Purcell and John Blow

Purcell & Blow - countertenor duets, Iestyn Davies, James Hall - Vivat
Countertenor duets by Henry Purcell & John Blow; Iestyn Davies, James Hall, The King's Consort, Robert King; VIvat
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 September 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
John Blow's elegy on the death of his friend and pupil, Henry Purcell, is the centrepiece of an engaging disc of duets by both composers

This delightful new disc from Vivat gives us a welcome opportunity to enjoy John Blow's An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell alongside a selection of duets by Blow and by his friend and pupil Henry Purcell. Counter-tenor Iestyn Davies is joined by a counter-tenor of the younger generation, James Hall, and they are accompanied by The King's Consort (Rebecca Miles & Ian Wilson recorders, Lynda Sayce theorbo & baroque guitar, Reiko Ichise bass viol) directed from the chamber organ and harpsichord by Robert King.

The disc opens with Hark how the songsters from Purcell's incidental music to Timon of Athens, which is taking at a rattling pace yet both singers cope with admirably. The two work well together with just enough contrast between the singers, yet the two sing with a stylish unity in the duets. The opening sequence is a nice mixture of duets and other items, by Purcell and Blow, so next comes the finely lyrical In vain the am'rous flute from Purcell's Hail, Bright Cecilia. Both items showcasing the stunning recorder playing from Rebecca Miles and Ian Wilson.

Iestyn Davies has a solo next, with Purcell's beautifully melancholy O Solitude. That is, I presume it is Davies' solo; whilst the CD booklet credits the instrumentalists in detail, track by track, it seems to fail to mention which singer does what. And this is followed by a suitably sombre instrumental Chaconne from Dioclesian.

Purcell's sheer fertility and genius has a tendency to put the music of John Blow in the shade, but Blow's can certainly stand up to Purcell's for imagination and quality. Blow's duet Ah, heav'n! What is't I hear? was originally part of Blow's setting of Tom D'Urfey's An Ode for the Anniversary Feast of St Cecilia. A finely melancholy piece, over a ground bass, of which I was delighted to make the acquaintance.

Purcell's Sound the Trumpet from Come ye Songs of Art, one of his birthday odes for Queen Mary, is a known quantity, but a delight to hear nonetheless particularly a performance as engaging as this one, full of rhythmic felicity. Another piece from Dioclesian comes next, a solo for Davies, Since the toils and the hazards of war one of Purcell's expressively complex arioso like pieces, a recitative that leads into a lively ground. And this is followed by the wonderfully perky duet Sing, sing ye druids from the incidental music to Bonducca. This section of the disc ends with Blow's Paratum cor meum Deus, a sacred duet which is surprisingly cheerful with the two singers interweaving over a ground bass.

James Hall and Iestyn Davies recording 'Countertenor Duets' (Photo David Gough/Vivat Music Foundation)
James Hall and Iestyn Davies recording Countertenor Duets (Photo David Gough/Vivat Music Foundation)
When Queen Mary died in 1694, to the shock and surprise of all, a number of musical tributes were produced. John Playford printed Three Elegies upon the much lamented loss of our late most gracioiu Queen Mary. In it there are Purcell and Blow's settings of The Queen's Epicedium, by one Mr Herbert, with Purcell setting the Latin versiona and Blow the English. The results are fascinating, and whilst Purcell's elaborate setting was known, Blow's was new to me. Purcell is stately and elaborate, with Iestyn Davies' counter-tenor weaving complex recitative over the ground bass, with a more lyrical section in the middle. Blow, by contrast is rather more song-like, over a ground bass again, but lovely its expressive melancholy. The trio of elegies is completed with Purcell's fine duet O dives custos Auriacae domus, rather stately as befitting a setting of a Latin text written by an Oxford don, but still with Purcell's trademark chromatic melodic line.

Purcell's death in 1695, a year after that of Queen Mary, came as a further shock to London's musical world. Blow's An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell is a setting of John Dryden's Mark how the lark and the linnet sing and was published by Henry Playford in 1696. Blow divides the text into three, an opening duet and a central sequence of arioso and recitative for the second voice (here Iestyn Davies), and then a final duet. The music is as complex and as elaborate as anything written by Purcell, a tour-de-force of large scale writing (it lasts over 20 minutes). The two singers throw off the virtuosic flourishes (what we think of now as Purcellian touches) in the vocal line with apparent. The central section is more fluid, but no less complex in the writing and Davies is his usual stylish self in the superb way he navigates and shapes this. The final duet is, frankly, positively catchy at times.

The focus on this disc will be the name of Iestyn Davies, but the music making here is superbly collegial with Davies and James Hall forming a lovely balanced pairing, Hall's voice seeming to have a slightly higher centre of gravity than that of Davies. And they are joined, supported and surrounded by colleagues who are equally at the top of their art, and the results have all the best qualities of chamber music and make you wish that they had recorded more.

Blow's ode has of course been on disc before, though perhaps not as often as it ought to. The classic recording is still Alfred Deller and the Deller Consort,  but for a very different view of the work you could try a recent recording from Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo which uses two haut-contres (high tenors) rather than counter-tenors.

The disc is released on 27 September 2019.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) - Hark how the songsters
Henry Purcell - In vain the am'rous flute
Henry Purcell - O solitude, my sweetest choice
Henry Purcell - Chaconne 'Two in one upon a ground'
John Blow (1649-1706) - Ah heav'n, what is't I hear?
Henry Purcell -  Sound the trumpet
Henry Purcell - Since the toils and the hazards of war
Henry Purcell - Sing, sing ye druids
John Blow - Paratum cor meum
Henry Purcell - The Queen's Epicedium: Incassum Lesbia
John Blow - The Queen's Epicedium: No, lesbia, no, you ask in vain
Henry Purcell - O dive custos Auricae domus
John Blow - An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell
Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor)
John Hall (counter-tenor)
The King's Consort ((Rebecca Miles & Ian Wilson recorders, Lynda Sayce theorbo & baroque guitar, Reiko Ichise bass viol)
Robert King (chamber organ & harpsichord)
Recorded at Alpheton New Maltings, Suffolk, 6-8 January 2019
VIVAT 118 1CD [77:33]
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